"Vertical Limit" opens with an eight-minute red-rock gripper. It's the vertiginous start of what one wag has called "The Perfect Climb" and it's certainly more edge-of-the-seat than the watery blue-screen storm flick.
Periodically this kind of ropes-and-crampons genre pops up with varying success. Remember Edward Dmytryk's turgid "The Mountain" (1956), Clint Eastwood's overlong, unintentional howler "The Eiger Sanction" (1975), and Renny Harlin's engaging "Cliffhanger" (1993).
With "Vertical Limit," referring to the height where a human can't survive for long, director Martin Campbell ("The Mask of Zorro," "Goldeneye") sets out to meld a heart-tugging tale of reconciliation with a high-altitude thriller.
For the most part he succeeds, though the script piles up so many perils of a six-person rescue mission on K2 that it borders on black (or rather white-out) comedy.
To play the former climber who launches a rescue mission to save his estranged sister trapped in a crevasse on the world's second highest peak, the director wanted a vulnerable-looking guy - not a cut-and-beefed up '70s or '80s action hero.
Chris O'Donnell, who must still be still stinging from his production company's crucified flop "The Bachelor" last year, fills the bill as gritty Peter Garrett.
Robin Tunney is his sister Annie, who hasn't forgiven him for sending their father to his death in a Sophie's Choice climbing situation on a Utah mesa.
Since then, Peter has abandoned his pitons for a camera as a National Geographic nature photographer while she's living out their father's legacy as a summit guide.
Her mistake is agreeing to lead a brash, self-seeking rich Texan, who times his party's ascent as a publicity stunt for his airline.
Bill Paxton assays the villainous bloke, and Canadian Nicholas Lea is the expedition leader who ignores a cardinal rule of climbing.
Swedish actress Izabella Scorupco (Natalya in "Goldeneye" plays a French-Canadian medic, Scott Glenn makes a grizzled recluse credible and Aussies Steve Le Marquand and Ben Mendelsohn are frisky brothers on the rescue team.
Kiwi star Temuera Morrison has a witty turn as a Pakistani major, while "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine's"Alexander Siddig took the small role of a porter as a rare chance to play a good movie Muslim rather than the usual terrorist .
Campbell manages to seamlessly mesh the location and refrigerated soundstage footage, shooting in the mountain regions of Mt. Cook and Queensland in his New Zealand homeland.
Director of photography David Tattersall (Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace") keeps the camera moving, production designer Jon Bunker ("Croupier") makes polystyrene, wax and Snow Foam sets look real, and the editing of Oscar-winner Thom Noble ("Witness") cross-cuts neatly between rescuers en route and the entombed.
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